United Voice played a major role in negotiating the passage of legislation through the South Australian Parliament to create two new part-public holidays for people working on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.
Our Union was proud to win this fight for our members, who are some of the lowest paid workers in South Australia.
The new industrial conditions have been won as part of a wider reform around modernising South Australia’s shop trading laws.
The State’s legislation covering trading hours was cumbersome and outdated. It prevented major retailers from trading on public holidays unless they sought specific exemptions from the State Government. As a result, our CBD’s main shopping tourist precinct Rundle Mall was closed on public holidays, much to the bewilderment of interstate and overseas tourists.
The reform to shop trading laws is indicative of the wider approach Premier Jay Weatherill is taking to his leadership of the South Australian Labor Party. When he became leader in October 2011, he made it clear that his government would bring new ideas and new energy to the table.
The Premier has told South Australians that he wants to build on the economic and social transformation already taking place in South Australia by putting policies in place to revitalise the city. His agenda is not only about reforming planning and working more closely with the Adelaide City Council around developments in the CBD, but about getting people and life back into the square mile.
He took aim early on at the shopping hours debate, which had been running for decades in South Australia with no resolution, by announcing reform was necessary to boost economic activity in the city, create consistency with other states and territories and open Adelaide up to public holiday trading.
When he became Premier, Jay Weatherill promised to consult more and take the community along with him in decisions about the State and its direction. His decision to announce the plan in November, with legislation due in Parliament in February this year, effectively gave the community three months to consider the merits or otherwise of the proposal.
A key part of the change was to recognise the people who work those extended hours. The Premier announced that part of the package of changes would create two new part-public holidays after 5pm on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. The creation of the two part-public holidays would ensure that workers have a choice to work or not on those evenings, and that if they do, they will be compensated.
Despite the agreement of key unions and the peak body representing South Australian businesses, Business SA, a rump group of other business associations formed a lobby group called the SA Business Coalition to fight against the changes.
This group came out fighting, claiming the change would cost employers ‘tens of millions of dollars’ and it was a price no fiscally responsible government should contemplate.
This group was all for extended trading – they just didn’t want South Australian working people to be paid for it.
Some of the claims made by business were simply preposterous. For instance, representatives for hardware stores tried to convince people the two new part-public holidays would have a major effect on their businesses. What they failed to say was that the change would only affect them for two hours every seven years, when Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve fall on a Thursday night when they trade until 9pm.
The Australian Hospitality Association’s Ian Horne said the proposed half-day public holidays could see some pay rates increase by as much as ‘275 per cent’ and must be stopped.
His ally, Restaurant and Catering SA, claimed the change would be ‘disastrous’ and would force restaurants, pubs and other 24-hour services to close, or would increase prices on those nights. CEO Sally Neville told the ABC, ‘80 percent of our members have told us that they will close Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.'
The public battle over the plan intensified. Both sides knew that without the support of the Liberal Party, the passage of the legislation through Parliament was going to rely on the support of some of the seven Independents.
Those seven cross benchers effectively hold the balance of power in the Legislative Council, and discussions began with them immediately.
United Voice played a leading role in coordinating several unions to mount a huge public and workplace campaign in support of the changes.With other unions, we created radio ads which ran over three weeks, booked full-page newspaper ads, and ran a social media campaign linked to a campaign specific website.
Union Members send postcards to members of the Legislative Council, join the campaign online and have their say on talkback radio.
After an extensive public campaign, Newspoll was commissioned to research community attitudes to the proposal. The research found a whopping 80.6 percent of people agreed that people working after 5 pm on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve deserved higher rates of pay for those hours. The release of that information to the media saw a packed media conference in Rundle Mall and coverage across all South Australian media that night.
United Voice Assistant Secretary David Gray and I went to Parliament to lobby for the change. We met with key crossbencher John Darley MLC and did some mythbusting on the claims of the business lobby, giving him the real story about how the change would affect the hotels and aged care sectors.
We pointed out that the new penalties would apply to less that 1 percent of a person’s working hours per year.
In a stunning coup, the Premier was then able to announce a compromise had been reached with Darley so that the new penalty rates would apply from 7pm, instead of the proposed 5pm. With the support of Darley, the two Greens, and Dignity for Disability’s Kelly Vincent, the legislation passed.
Jay Weatherill said: ‘South Australia will be the State that respects the people who are out there working while the rest of us are enjoying ourselves, and our State rewards or compensates those workers. I’m very proud to put my name to that.’
United Voice supported the change because it will make a real difference to our members.
Hospitality workers, cleaners, security guards, catering staff, hospital and aged care workers are just some of the people who work on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. They should be rewarded for that.
And while we will continue to fight in bigger campaigns to do something about those historically low wages across many of our sectors, small wins like this one will deliver a real benefit to our members.
Author: David DiTroia,
David DiTroia is South Australian United Voice Branch Secretary.